Tuesday, September 3, 2013

namascar from India

While in India, my fearless traveling companions took it upon themselves to write actual letters.
I wrote long email-letters instead.
International post made sending snail mail prohibitive.
The postcards I sent to my siblings arrived home several days after I did.
So, the internet became my pony express.
And it seems that expressing yourself is easier in the organized, formatted style of letter-writing.
You can't stumble for words, or have your mouth move faster than your brain.
Writing a letter means your thoughts have to be somewhat organized.
This is the basic format that eventually developed:

Begin with an appropriate introduction:
I hope you have been well. [classic. reliable. fool-proof. cannot fail.]
How is your summer going? [good. sets a conversational tone]
You have been in my prayers. Or: I have placed an intention at Mother's tomb for you.
[only say if truthful]
I miss you. [use this one sparingly. Missing people is a very tender thing to do, and shouldn't be done flippantly.]

Good. Well done. An efficient introduction to the heart of what you want to say.
So now for the real deal:
Okay, well maybe talk about your recent trip to Darjeeling:

"We took an overnight sleeper train from Kolkata to New Jalipurigi, which was quite the adventure!" 
[this is sort of lame. Traveling within traveling is an aberration within an aberration. It doesn't describe the larger exotic adventure of your summer.]

Describe the scenery:
We saw little gompas tucked on the sides of the mountains, and little mountain streams rushing down the hillsides, with prayer flags criss-crossing across the openings between trees.
As we approached, we saw the Himalayan peaks in the distance--it was beautiful!
[this is good. It says nothing about goats pooping.]

Okay. Right.
Kolkata itself?
Maybe describe a lesson learned:

 I've grown to appreciate what a useful and marvelous invention a fan is! Since it's so hot here, the AC is a nice relief for a bit in a store or a restaurant, but if I was constantly going in and out between heat and air conditioning, I don't think I would ever be able to get my body to adjust to the heat.
[aka if you had AC you would be in bed sick for several days, like 76% of the volunteers you know who have AC in their rooms. This is a much more pleasant way to say that. Kudos to you.]

Describe your emotions:
Being here at Mother Teresa's headquarters, in Kolkata has been such a blessing. It's been a huge summer of growth so far, and I'm so excited that I have another month here--I'm looking forward to all the challenges and adventures that will bring.
[challenges: not getting hit by a bus and not getting malaria from a mosquito; adventures: crossing the street, trying to communicate in Bengali, haggling with the fruit vendor, helping Sister with registration, playing catch with Shakina.]

Describe your work:
I'm working this summer at Shanti Dan which is one of the MC's homes for mentally and physically challenged women and girls. I work closely with a group of nine young ladies (ranging in age from 15 to 37) who are all pretty physically active, but range from pretty high functioning to low functioning. They are incredible souls, and have taught me so much about how to love others.

[If only those words could immediately conjure up in your readers' imaginations the inevitable dance party that each class time morphs into, or the look on Supporna's face when she's excited about climbing into bed, or how Lilly's smiles break through her big, shiny tears like sunbeams, or how you have to make sure each lunchtime that Rina is not sitting on the bench next to the easily-destroyed mural, or how your breath gets caught in your throat when Moni looks right into your blue eyes with her great big brown ones, and you feel like you're looking into the eyes of a saint.]

My words, I found more often than not, were so flat and colorless.
And failed to describe what I wanted them to describe.

And so, I was talking with one of my traveling companions, under the blue sky of the first autumnal-feeling September day, and she said: you can't really share Kolkata through words, as much as in your actions, the way you live your life.
And I agreed.
For the most part.
But I also thought I'd been doing a pretty shoddy job of doing just that.

Every time I lost my patience, or was less-than-kind, or complained about something that really wasn't worth complaining about, I shot a look of askance at myself.
I wasn't acting the way I expected I would act if I'd just returned from a summer working with Missionaries of Charity in India.
I expected that Kolkata was going to work a dramatic paradigm shift.
I imagined Kolkata was going to be Insta-Saint®.

1. Take one (1) package of Insta-Saint®.
2. Add 3-5 liters of purified water per day!
3. Bake in temperatures of 40+ degrees Celsius!
4. Instant Holiness! Results Guaranteed!

But then, a professor put the problem to us in class yesterday: why is it easier to represent evil in a piece of art than good?
Why is Dante's Inferno so much more celebrated than his Paradiso?
Why do we seem to have a better imaginative picture of evil than of good?

I don't know if there's a definitive answer. (The older I grow, I find that definitive answers become scarcer and scarcer. This is an unsettling-- but sometimes wonderful-- phenomenon.)
But I think the thing about goodness is that it's not a one-time decision.
Goodness seems in some way to be a function of consistency and time.
Goodness, perhaps, is the decision to rise and get up and go on your way after a fall; and it can only become apparent really as you march through the world, always falling, but always rising.

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